April 2018


  • Lead the way
    At our Annual Conference, Geoff Barton urged the government and other agencies to reduce the bureaucratic burden on the education profession, but he said leaders should also step up and act now on workload. More
  • #WomenEd: A leading voice
    Frustrated at the lack of momentum gathered by initiatives to encourage women into leadership, #WomenEd decided to take action. Co-founder Keziah Featherstone explains why something had to change. More
  • Central vision
    How do multi-academy trusts (MATs) create a shared ethos and culture across their schools? GL Assessment's Chief Executive Greg Watson argues that the key is to think centrally but work collaboratively. More
  • Primary goals
    ASCL's newly published Primary Accountability Review makes 15 key recommendations to help ensure that primary schools are held to account for what matters most. Here ASCL Policy Director Julie McCulloch takes a look at the review's findings. More
  • School funding: The impact
    How have school funding levels changed, what effect is this having on spending and what is the relationship between funding and outcomes? Here, NFER Research Manager Maire Williams explores the latest research. More
  • Invaluable insights
    ASCL Annual Conference was a chance to take stock of what we do in our schools and colleges, and opened our eyes to fantastic learning and networking opportunities, says Headteacher Theo Nickson. More
Bookmark and Share

Frustrated at the lack of momentum gathered by initiatives to encourage women into leadership, #WomenEd decided to take action. Co-founder Keziah Featherstone explains why something had to change.

#WomenEd: A leading voice

The absence of women in leadership roles has been for as long as I have been in the education profession.

Studies and statistics over many years have highlighted the persistent gender imbalance at the top of the leadership tree.

A 2015 report by the then Future Leaders Trust (www.ascl.org.uk/femaleheads) drawing on government workforce figures, found that while almost threequarters (74 %) of the state school workforce in England is female, only 65% of heads are women. If the numbers were equal, it would equate to more than 1,700 extra heads.

A 2016 study by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) into executive headship also highlighted the under-representation of women in executive headship, compared with the proportion of women heads. And, in 2017, research by the University of Nottingham in secondary schools specifically concluded that it would take 25 years for the number of women heads to reflect the number of women in the teaching workforce (http://bit.ly/2Gq5FsW).

Any amount of initiatives has been tried but still the problem persists. High-achieving, ambitious, hard-working and capable women are turning their backs on what should be a prized career goal and they are doing it in vast numbers.

Not only sexism

Which suggests that the cause is much deeper than plain old sex discrimination. Discrimination is against the law. But unconscious bias against women – or against anyone who doesn’t match the expected ‘norm’ – expresses itself in many different ways and at different levels.

Some governing bodies still carefully draw up a job description for a new head emphasising characteristics most closely associated traditionally with men – discipline, sporting values, and gravitas. This then puts potential female candidates off, giving the impression that some governing bodies like the idea of some sort of paternalistic figure as the head of their organisation.

Then there’s the female leader who warns her colleague off seeking to go part-time because “I asked ten years ago and was told it was impossible”. But it’s ridiculous to assume that a senior leader can’t work part-time. It actually provides lots of opportunities for someone else to step up into leadership as a job-share or a temporary role. And all leaders should be talking about this as part of their values, not just addressing it as a ‘problem’ for individuals.

Meanwhile, the women who are successful in managing to combine a leadership role with having a family are often seen as an anomaly, rather than the norm.

(Sexism has hardly gone away of course. Some female colleagues have told me that they have been quizzed by governing bodies on their plans for a family and, in one particular case, what her ‘contraceptive plan’ was. And one primary colleague overheard a male newly qualified teacher (NQT) being told, “You’ll be a head in a couple of years because you’re a man.”)

It’s not until you realise how widespread the problem is that you start to realise why something has to be done.

This is how #WomenEd was born: a group of women leaders, deeply frustrated at the lack of change, came together to take action ourselves. The feeling that we, as established school leaders, should do something for the next generation began to build until it became an imperative.

We provide mentoring and advice on interview techniques and on how to ‘sell’ yourself. We offer one-to-one help with job applications – in the South West, famously, one of the groups runs a drop-in session at a motorway services. We have held three ever-growing national ‘unconferences’ and hundreds of smaller regional events. With a website (www.womened.org), a Facebook page, a blog and even our own app, we are doing all we can to connect and support women to make what may feel like the impossible possible.

We now have more than 15,000 following @WomenEd on Twitter and more than 50 regional leaders, including some in Canada, the US and the Netherlands.

And we have influence. #WomenEd was name-checked in the 2016 White Paper Education Excellence Everywhere, which in turn led to the DfE’s Women Leaders in Education regional grants. We were invited to present at the DfE’s summit on flexible working and we are the subject of research by the University of Nottingham (http://bit.ly/2Gq5FsW).

Most importantly, huge numbers of women have cited our support as a key ingredient in securing promotions, including to headship.

Concrete ceiling

However, for all these successes, we know that there are huge numbers we have not been able to reach. Not only is there still very definitely a glass ceiling in education, for Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and/ or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) women, it is often a concrete ceiling.

Our work so far with ASCL on some of these issues has been vitally important.

ASCL has an exceptionally loud voice in leadership and headship. And there are still a lot of women leaders unaware of us.

It has a major part to play in campaigning and championing proper equality in leadership and to help women who face barriers. Because even with union support, some women are reluctant to ‘make a fuss’ when they find out that they are being paid less than a male counterpart or have been denied the right to work part-time.

ASCL is actively working to promote greater diversity in the profession by communicating information about equalities networks and services to members, working with other organisations to promote equalities, and placing a greater focus on equalities in its Leadership Appointment Service. For further information see www.ascl.org.uk/equalities

ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton, said “In secondary education more men are headteachers than women, despite the fact that the majority of classroom teachers are women. We need to encourage and support more women to progress to senior leadership roles. This is important in itself, but also because seeing women in senior leadership will encourage female students to aspire to leadership roles themselves.”

In addition, at the request of the then Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, Geoff co-chaired a summit with Regional Schools Commissioner Vicky Beer on flexible working.

Individual leaders can help enormously. Work with your governing body to fully embrace a flexible working policy; enable leaders to retain leadership responsibilities if they go part-time; try blind short-listing for key roles; review person specifications and job descriptions for gendered language; and evaluate how balanced your staff is, how representative it is and how would you look if you published your gender pay gap.

There is a serious, ongoing shortage of school and college leaders and we can’t afford, as a profession, to allow swathes of women to be excluded or to exclude themselves from that pool.

If leadership is going to get better in schools and colleges, if children and young people are going to have the best leaders, we need to ensure that as many of the good people as possible are aspiring to leadership.

We need to encourage and support more women to progress to senior leadership roles. This is important in itself, but also because seeing women in senior leadership will encourage female students to aspire to leadership roles themselves.

Geoff Barton

Keziah Featherstone
Keziah is a member of ASCL and is co-founder and national leader for #WomenEd.